"Goin' to the Chapel of Love":
Teenage Bridal-Think
in Mid-century American Popular Culture

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2018, Volume 17, Issue 1


Meghan M. Sweeney
University of North Carolina Wilmington

In the early 1960s, pop songs about young people yearning to get married saturated the airwaves: Bob B. Soxx and the Bluejeans insisted that, despite Mama's protests, they were "not too young," Paul and Paula, having "waited so long for school to be through," declared they could wait no more, and the girl group The Dixie Cups went to the "Chapel of Love" (Spector; Hildebrand). In this last song, which spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard Top 100 in 1964, The Dixie Cups sang: "Bells will ring, the sun will shine/ I'll be his and he'll be mine/ We'll love until the end of time/ And we’'l never be lonely anymore" (Bronson 149; Barry). As in postwar popular culture more broadly, the wedding acts as a panacea: with it, loneliness is banished and romantic love conquers all on the day the couple says "I do."
In the nearly two decades after World War II,1 the ritualized wedding played a crucial role in shaping and reflecting social norms, and wedding planning became a national pastime for many teenage girls, both in songs and in everyday life. As the uncomfortable war years receded, the public ritual of the wedding helped create a sense of coherence, with the young, radiant bride and, to a lesser extent, the young groom, serving as powerful symbols of America's triumph over the dark forces that had ravaged Europe. A wedding was the inaugural event in the establishment of a strong household that maintained clearly defined gender roles. Moreover, a wedding signified a young couple's commitment and financial solvency, while a hasty courthouse marriage could signal capriciousness and a lack of emotional maturity, if not an unexpected pregnancy.
A number of scholars2 have addressed the rise of the white wedding in this period after World War II, but my focus is on popular texts intended for teen and pre-teen girls and the rhetorical strategies they used to promote wedding culture, even as they warned of the dangers of marrying too soon. I discuss texts and products that were widely available for middle class American girls at the time – including advice books, romance comics, toys, and songs, as well as media coverage of teen celebrity weddings – all of which promote teenage "bridal-think": the notion that it is not only desirable for women to marry young, but that it is imperative for girls to begin planning – and even shopping – for a wedding years before marriage. This article demonstrates how pervasive teenage bridal-think was among predominantly white middle class girls, how it was made compelling, and how it fit in with broader postwar ideals of femininity and consumerism.  

Why Marry Young?

In 1900, the estimated median age for marriage was 25.9 for men and 21.9 for women; by 1956, that age had dropped to 22.5 for men and 20.1 for women ("Estimated Median Age"). Perhaps even more striking: in 1959, forty-seven percent of females married before they turned nineteen, and from 1940 to the late 1950s the "percentage of girls between fourteen and seventeen who were married jumped one-third" (Bailey 43). There are a number of reasons for this shift to youthful marriage. The 1953 advice manual When You Marry, which offered a "functional approach to teaching marriage and family living" (Duvall and Hill vii) cheerfully remarked that "with the higher standard of living has come the ability of young people to marry at younger ages, and a far higher percentage of the population marry than was possible at the beginning of the twentieth century" (411). Such language – particularly words such as ability and possible – suggests that youthful marriages were desired, but not economically feasible, in earlier decades, which was at least partially true. Thanks to the postwar boom and GI loans, youthful veterans could now afford to marry and have a home of their own earlier than in previous years.
Yet, as social historian Elaine Tyler May observes, "Peace and affluence alone are inadequate to explain the many complexities of the post-World War II domestic explosion" (5). Rather, she argues, the Cold War ideology of communist containment had a direct corollary in the domestic sphere. To alleviate fears of nuclear annihilation, communist takeover, emancipated women, and racial strife, "Americans turned to the family as a bastion of safety in an insecure world" (9). Politicians and experts actively promoted codes of conduct and enacted legislation that would act as bulwarks against these dangers (9). Advocating early marriage and family rearing was one way to reassure the country that all was well: by marrying, buying a house, and starting a family, young couples were taking part in the newly rejuvenated American Dream.
Far from being an end to the maturation process, a postwar marriage could be seen as one part of growing up. In 1948, Walter Stokes, the author of Modern Pattern for Marriage, wrote, "Emotionally mature and responsible young couples who are deeply in love may often feasibly enter marriage at an early age, perhaps seventeen or eighteen," adding that "the marriage usually has a maturing and stabilizing effect upon their emotional lives" (qtd. in Weiss 23). Some married teens echoed that sentiment, emphasizing that being young actually made marriage life easier. In one article, a "too young couple" says, "We've grown up quickly, and together. Neither of us were so set in our ways that we couldn't learn the give and take a marriage involves…When you're young you don't see how serious things are, yet you'll likely come through okay" (Nimrod 55). The same article also urges parents to "give their blessing" to teens who marry: "a marriage with poor beginnings has a chance to grow into a solid partnership – with a little encouragement" (55). Although these fledgling marriages might have been subsidized by parents, many saw it as worthwhile – it was, after all, meant to be an investment in America's bright future. 
While both boys and girls were encouraged to think ahead to marriage, guidebooks made it clear that girls could not start planning for this "job" early enough. One way to prepare for marriage was to begin wedding planning, long before a prospective groom was in sight. While girls had played wedding dress-up before the postwar period, Otnes and Pleck observe that "the 1950s brought bridal fantasies within the reach of the average seven-to-ten-year-old American girl" (47). Disney's film Cinderella, the sixth-highest grossing film of 1950, offered the fairy tale template for the mid-century girl (Jellison 158). Cinderella's wedding to Prince Charming was an animated visual feast, complete with all of the highlights of the perfect royal wedding: a stunning dress, besotted guests, an exquisite carriage, and a romantic kiss. "From beginning to end," Katherine Jellison writes, "Cinderella instructs its viewers in the appropriate gender roles, courtship rituals, and consumer practices of 1950s America" (155). Soon, girls could construct elaborate fairy tale weddings of their own by consuming a host of Disney Cinderella products in addition to playing with Madame Alexander or Betsy McCall bridal dolls and dressing up in miniature bridal gowns. In 1959, the same year Barbie was introduced, Barbie's "Wedding Day Set" appeared; of all clothing sets sold, the wedding gown was consistently a bestseller (Otnes and Pleck 47).
In catalogues and Christmas wish books, the rhetoric surrounding these bridal dolls was consistent: they were described as beautiful, exquisitely small, demure, just as the girls who played with them were meant to be. The bridal Sweet Sue Walking Doll, for example, was "slender, demure, and as lovely as a storybook bride" and "a creation of sweet loveliness" ("Sweet Sue"). Most dolls came fully equipped with multiple wedding accessories that helped solidify the concept of a lavish white wedding. In one 1959 ad, the "fashionable" Betsy McCall was a "beautiful blushing bride," ready for the "BIG day!" with bouquet, ring, bridal slippers, stockings, and ruffled panties ("Betsy McCall"). While princess dolls, dancing dolls, and baby dolls might share the same page, it is the bridal dolls who are the clear rulers; they are also, typically, the most expensive.3 These dolls act as surrogates for little brides-in-waiting, who might also add full bridal costumes to their holiday wish list, complete with all of the accoutrements that the bridal dolls possessed. One "Wonderful Play-time Outfit" from 1959 includes a complete wedding dress with "a tiny nosegay, imitation pearls," and a "dainty wedding ring" ("Wonderful Play-Time"). The girl wearing the outfit, who appears to be around four years of age, tosses her bouquet gleefully. Boys' play-time outfits, unsurprisingly, did not include a wedding option; this was strictly meant to be a little girl's fantasy, one that primed her for her future role as bride.
Once girls grew too big for dolls and dress up, they were expected to construct fantasies about their own, much-anticipated future weddings. Numerous guidebooks and advice columns helped them do it. As one, What about Teen-Age Marriage? wrote:

You and your friends have drooled over the fabulous wedding gowns in the bridal shops, mentally trying them on. You've thumbed through the bridal magazines and sighed through newsreels of fairy tale weddings like Princess Margaret's. You wonder how it would feel if you were the bride moving slowly down the aisle, radiant in white, hundreds of friends and relatives watching you, their eyes brimming with happiness – and just that tiny trace of envy. (Sakol 36)

The voice is authoritative: surely this is what "you" and your friends do. And why would you not? Brides occupied a place of honor in postwar culture – the government as well as private industry needed to keep women out of the workplace and in the home to free up jobs for returning soldiers and young men just reaching working age. The new society also needed professional housewives to buy manufactured mechanical goods to clean the house and help with cooking – goods now coming out of the same factories that hade previously manufactured the tools of war.

Some advice manuals, however, argued that early marriage may be dangerous: it could cause foolhardy youngsters to make the leap to the altar before they have had time to properly consider the pros and cons. Teens who suffer from ennui, who feel acutely the dullness of life, are particularly prone. These young women are more likely to say, Jean Sakol maintains, "I've got a great idea. Let's get married!" Girls may dream about the "thrill of it all! A wedding. A honeymoon" (31). But, Sakol cautions, "Like any adventure, however, you must be prepared. Hillary didn't conquer Mount Everest because one fine morning he was bored" (31). Weddings and marriage are like mountain climbing: the air is rare and clear on the marriage peak, but it is hard, dirty work getting there. Thus, Sakol has earnest advice: make marriage a last resort (32). Boredom and incurable wedding dreams may be the result of a health issue. Instead of getting married, she advises her readers, "have a medical checkup. You could easily be anemic or deficient in some vital vitamin" (32). These marriage-obsessed teens might find relief in shopping, going to the mountains, or joining the Girl Scouts (Sakol 35).
While Sakol's solutions seem to border on parody, her concerns about rash teen marriage were common in the 1950s and 1960s. Even as many extoled the virtues of youthful marriage, they also celebrated the benefits of a cautionary period, underscoring that teens who "marry in haste" often "repent in haste, too" (Stewart 51). This point was particularly important since teen marriage was becoming increasingly a middle-class phenomenon. A study published in 1963 suggested that, in the years prior to World War II, teenagers who got married tended to be from lower socioeconomic groups that were (as the article bluntly put it) "rarely noticed or missed by the general public" (Morgan 483). By the late 1950s, though, they tended to be from "higher socio-economic groups – the son of the local banker, or the PTA president's daughter – whose early marriages are cause for community excitement" (483). Teenage marriage was very much in the public eye and was a national cause for concern.4 As a semi-sensationalist piece in a 1959 Life magazine article put it: "the marriage bug [could] bite a whole community at a time" ("Costly Hazard" 119). In one Charlotte, North Carolina high school, a few influential students eloped and started a fad that ended with three to four percent of the student body married (119). Due to a firm principal, students' social exclusion of the newlyweds (unfortunate, the article suggests, but nonetheless a successful deterrent), and the bleak example that some married couples presented, the trend died down.
Given the fraught nature of teen marriage, the best way to make sure teens were ready for marriage was, experts agreed, to ask the experts. In this postwar age, parents and kinship networks were no longer seen as sufficient role models. Sakol suggested that "every young couple planning to marry should make some effort to consult beforehand with an impartial expert" because "modern life is complex": emotional factors, military service, atomic war "have an unsettling effect on all our thoughts" (176). There were plenty of experts willing to weigh in: from instructional films (such as Coronet's 1950 Are You Ready for Marriage?) to teenage heart-throb Pat Boone, who, in his guidebook 'Twixt Twelve and Twenty, soberly cautioned couples against early marriage (even though he himself had eloped with his wife at age nineteen).
Marriage courses, too, were popular in high schools and colleges throughout the period. The textbook Being Married by marriage gurus Evelyn Millis Duvall and Reuben Hill provides a window into the kind of curriculum educators used.5 It reported that "men" typically judged their own marriageability by their "occupational competence" while "girls" (the term is used instead of women) gauged their readiness for marriage by their "ability to make a man happy" (103). It also, as with other books of the period, included wedding planning as a key component. The chapter "Your Wedding Plans" includes a calendar for wedding planning, gift etiquette, detailed suggestions for a wedding ceremony, descriptions of possible wedding clothes (a bride's wedding outfit should serve as the "the keynote theme of her wedding"), and resources for further reading (180). A well-planned wedding communicated that couples were serious, financially solvent, and upstanding members of their community. Increasingly, as Vicki Howard notes in her comprehensive history of the wedding industry, a lavish wedding was coming to be seen not as frivolous spending but as "necessary for the continuation of democracy" during the Cold War (31). Indeed, a Bride's Magazine handbook for newlyweds asserted that when you buy the "dozens of things you never bought or even thought of before…you are helping to build greater security for the industries of this country…what you buy and how you buy it is very vital in your new life – and to our whole American way of living" (Harvey 110). Spending was a way to express one's loyalty to husband and to country; opting out was un-American.
Similarly, What about Teen-Age Marriage? assures readers that wedding gifts were not "merely part of a money-making scheme thought up by department stores. Wedding gifts are an essential to the start of every marriage" (Sakol 60). Marriage, the book emphasizes, requires a solid economic foundation, and a couple that meets life's challenges armed with pots, pans, and paring knives has a better chance at survival. Even those who are of limited means should take part in these rituals of consumption, another advice manual, The Bride Looks Ahead, stresses: "If you are marrying on a shoestring, you may modestly declare that you will never be able to aspire to sterling silver or lovely china or fine-cut crystal. Perhaps not, but more probably yes" (Scott 87). Members of the wedding industry, from jewelers to florists, were becoming, as Howard observes, "experts on inventing tradition" that legitimized big spending on weddings (3).  
Concurrent with the wedding industry becoming more savvy and wide-reaching, marketing experts such as Eugene Gilbert were recognizing that teenagers were an extremely lucrative market. By 1958, according to one estimate, American teenagers were spending nine and a half billion dollars a year (MacDonald). It is no surprise that, in periodicals for girls, teenage bridal-think was cultivated through advertisements for wedding goods.   
In her history of Seventeen Magazine, Kelley Massoni observes this trend. From "September 1949 to September 1950, twenty-two manufacturers advertised the 'necessities' of post-pubescent feminine domesticity: silverware, hope chests, culinary products and tools, and home decorating items" (131); such a trousseau could act as an arsenal in insecure times. Advertisers presented these products as "the material representation of marriage and love," stand-ins until young women found the "right one" (134). Thus, sterling silverware might plausibly be seen as "one half of a love match" (134). No longer would a young woman be subject to her parents' notions of proper cutlery: now she had the freedom – and the responsibility – to make her own decisions. Would she prefer the "Greenbriar" pattern or the "Chantilly"? The curves and scallops of her silverware gave contour to her own femininity, a sense about what kind of girl she really was. More than the groom himself, silver was something "to love and live with all your life" (134). If a teenager planned carefully for her future wedding (heeding the advice of advice books) and spent carefully (heeding the advice of advertisers), she could shape herself into the best bride she could be while avoiding a hasty marriage.
By 1952, the big white wedding with its big price tag was already such a fixture in the lives of many middle-class Americans that Life magazine declared "there are more ways to spend more money on one wedding than anyone would have thought possible a few decades ago" ("Wedding Business" 119). Life itself played an important role in the $3 billion-dollar-a-year wedding boom. Katherine Jellison observes that in the mid-1950s, Life established "the formal white wedding as the American way to wed at a time when a sizeable number of Americans (more than a third) looked to the magazine for their cultural cues" (Jellison 200). Life, as well as other popular magazines such as Look and bridal magazines such as Modern Bride, featured images of the lavish weddings of celebrities as well as "ordinary" Americans who were anxious to have the "right" wedding and who looked to Lane cedar chests, Artcarved rings, and Franciscan Masterpiece china for assistance.
In these mainstream magazines, advertisements for wedding goods invariably showcased white brides. Yet, increasingly, the middle-class white wedding was not only for white Americans. Magazines such as Ebony6 and Jet featured black brides, using the wedding as a "venue to demonstrate African American adherence to broader American views of marriage" (Dunak 404). They provided African Americans with a way to assert American citizenship and (through elements such as venue and ceremony language), maintain cultural distinction (404). At the same time, though, such periodicals remained deeply skeptical of teenage marriage. In a 1961 article, "The Tragedy of Teen-Age Marriage," Carl T. Rowan maintains that early marriages "constitute one of the major barriers to the Negro's march to first-class citizenship" (61-62). While he acknowledged that early marriage was a problem in all segments of American society, he emphasized the particularly devastating effect on black youth. Rowan argued that early marriage was not just a tragedy on an individual level: it was also a social tragedy. Although weddings were one way to have greater access to the privileges of citizenship in the postwar period, teenage marriage carried a greater risk of poverty for African Americans than for the white population, and wedding culture was not consistently celebrated and cultivated among youth.

A Comic Romance

As (primarily white) girls were being encouraged to envision themselves as future brides in advice books and magazines, they were also presented with romantic images of teen brides in romance comics. These comics, which began with the 1947 publication of Young Romance, were incredibly popular: by 1950, more than one quarter of comic books published were romance comics (Robbins 54). In the same year, Newsdealer magazine indicated that females aged seventeen to twenty-five were reading more comic books than men (qtd. in Robbins 54). While stories of girlish crushes and high school sock hops had been featured throughout the 1940s in teen humor comics such as Archie, romance comics dealt more explicitly with courtship and marriage. They exhorted women to marry young, forgo careers, and support their husbands' decisions. Each issue had three to four self-contained stories, which were typically written in the first person. Notably, although the romance comics world was primarily a white one, Negro Romance, published briefly by Fawcett in the 1950s, was written for African Americans.7 It depicted African Americans as stylish, college-bound, and upper middle-class, atypical of comics of the era, which usually featured grotesquely racist caricatures. Like other romance comics, though, these were morality tales, concerned with pairing demure young women with the most suitable suitor.
Many romance comics focused on the courtship process, including engagement and an elaborate wedding. The youthful bride herself was central, as titles such as Secrets of Young Brides, Teen-Age Brides, True Bride-to-Be Romances indicate. Covers featured young women in ostentatious wedding gowns with rippling veils and yards of satin. Clutching enormous bouquets or slicing into lavish cakes, brides smile up at their handsome, tuxedoed groom. These comics offered glamorous images of young brides who were (with a few tears) almost always able to make the transition to doting wife, despite or even because of their youth. They engaged in and capitalized on the national conversation about teenage brides, inviting their readers to participate in a conversation about teen marriage. "Should we hold a contest for the prettiest teen-age bride?" one 1954 comic asked. "Are Teen-agers too young to marry? Decide for yourself! Have every issue mailed directly to your home!" ("Are Teen-Agers"). Language was often insistent, with copious use of exclamation marks and italics to generate enthusiasm: “Reserve your copies now! Reserve your share of the thrills, the rapture, the ecstasy of teen-age brides!” (“Are Teen-Agers”).
Yet while thrills, rapture, and ecstasy may have had their place, a virtuous heroine was the key to romance comics. If the heroine was indeed virtuous, wedding narratives ended happily, although the route the couple took to get there varied. Brides-to-be in these stories often consider themselves profoundly unworthy of the magnificent love their fiancé bestows on them. For example, in a 1957 story called "My Prince Charming," a young woman falls in love with handsome millionaire Tony Van Cleet. She considers herself "a nobody...unsophisticated…poor," but Tony considers her a treasure, the "sweetest, most unspoiled" girl he's ever met, and the pair are soon wed. A misunderstanding about her motivation ensues, but, because of the heroine's unselfish dedication to love, the story ends happily: a fantasy of postwar upward mobility and domestic bliss ("My Prince").
Even as the women in the pages of romance comics dissolve into tears, the men are sturdy pillars. They help steer young women through trials such as being pursued through the wilds of Tennessee by a jilted and armed ex-lover – and to the altar ("Flaming Passion"). They do not mind when they find out they are marrying their fiancée's twin sister because it was her they had loved all along ("Lost Bride"). These men – muscled, in control, perfectly coiffed and with thick, expressive eyebrows – make ideal grooms.
A rush to the altar is acceptable in these stories, particularly if the young man is serving overseas and if the bride's family approves. In one story ("Suitable for Marriage"), not only does the family approve of the heroine's swift marriage, they also, she finds, engineered her first date and had begun planning her wedding in advance. Her brother informs her "I'm already picked as best man." Such "marriage arrangements" are not perceived as inappropriate meddling: they are how family members show that they care about a vulnerable, unmarried daughter and secure a safe and happy future for her. Unlike horror and crime comics, which often reflected a darkly sinister view of the world, romance comics consistently upheld mainstream postwar ideology and the promise of marriage.
Even a story such as "Never Too Late" (1963), which seems poised to offer a sharp critique of conventional marriage wisdom, ends up offering a conventional happy ending. This story begins with Linda, a stunning black-haired bride, with an oversized veil, an alluring gown, and a strong case of last-minute jitters. With her gown swirling around her, she exclaims, "I can't stand the thought of being tied down for the rest of my life…to  be dominated…almost like a slave." Something "deep within me," she says, "rebelled at the very thought of marriage." She runs away, leaving her jilted lover at the altar, disappointed but still in love with her. Her anxieties and frustrations seem indicative of the time: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan had been published some months earlier, giving voice to the dissatisfactions of women around the country. As Friedan put it, "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home'" (78). As the rest of this story makes clear, though, a young woman can and should ignore such voices. Linda gains nothing by choosing to run from marriage: "And so the days turned into weeks, then months…and then years! I dated even less frequently now and busied myself with an office job! I suppose you might say I'd become a young old maid!" She watches her friends march down the aisle, noticing "the look of pity in their eyes." According to comic book logic, though, since Linda has not had an affair with a married man or stolen any fortunes, she still deserves a shot at happiness. This means marriage, at last, with the fiancé she had left years before at the altar. Her doubts have been swept away, or have been suppressed, and she and the long-suffering Don are married. Romance comics may have acknowledged some of the same struggles that Friedan did, but the solution was to maintain the status quo.
While today these comics seem absurdly outdated, particularly after pop art's reimagining of the form, romance comics played an important role in cementing Cold War ideologies, punishing characters who symbolized America's decadent youth, while reaffirming the wholesome goodness of America's young brides-to-be. With a focus on courtship and the bridal spectacle, they made marriage seem like an incredibly attractive option – the only acceptable option – to fans. And at only ten cents, these comics were approximately four times less expensive than a movie ticket, making them accessible to almost anyone with a little pocket money. 

A Star Is Wed

As romance comics made teen weddings seem like a tantalizing possibility, teenage girls in Hollywood were following through on the promise, further establishing the mystique of the white wedding and bolstering teenage bridal-think. Films such as Father of the Bride and articles in fan magazines featured images of teen weddings with celebrity brides swathed in lace and a dapper young groom by her side. Skirting the sobering day-to-day realities of marriage, weddings both on screen and in the tabloids offered magnificent pageants with brides as confections. These weddings were by no means limited to teenagers, but with some of the country's most beloved teenage actresses playing brides on screen and/or getting married themselves, ordinary teens were offered a host of images of young women whose dreams had – it seemed – come true.
In films, interviews, publicity stills, articles in fan magazines, and other media texts, teenagers’ bridal bodies came to have immense signifying power. They represented simultaneously a sense of fulfillment (wedding as dream come true) and potentiality (the wedding night to come). When star power and bridal power aligned, the combination was intoxicating, and it was easy to forget that Hollywood could not sustain the wedding fantasies. Despite the cautionary tales many teen marriages became, with each new wedding or elopement came a feeling of renewed optimism: this was the perfect romance fans were waiting for; this was the perfect wedding.
During the early 1940s, celebrity weddings had not been major Hollywood events. When teen celebrities such as Deanna Durbin married, they faced the disapproval of their studios, which were still capitalizing on their girl-next-door charm. Wartime weddings were also smaller, more private celebrations that were not necessarily covered by media outlets. Life magazine, for example, although it ran an ad for Lane hope chests featuring Deanna Durbin, chose not to run photos of her wedding itself. This choice prompted a terse letter to the editor from an irritated fan: "I would appreciate knowing why absolutely no pictures of Deanna Durbin's wedding appeared in Life. If that wasn't news, then I'm slipping. It would have been nice seeing her smiling face on some of the pages instead of pictures on war, etc." ("Letter" 6). The editors responded somewhat irritably with a photo: "Herewith a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn Paul, than whose wedding a number of other world events seemed more important at the time" (6).
In the postwar period, with more and more American youth embracing lavish weddings as potent symbols of romantic fulfillment and economic stability, celebrity weddings began receiving more coverage. Shirley Temple’s 1945 wedding to Jack Agar was one such widely covered event. Like other stars including Durbin before her, Shirley Temple's maturation process had been subjected to an "intensely voyeuristic publicity campaign" that made, as Ilana Nash puts it, "such voyeurism appear a normal, expected element of a teen girl's public portrayal" (23). Audiences expected to witness her "chrysalis moment," the "carefully manipulated scenario in which an adolescent female is shown crossing a threshold of sexual maturity" (23). Films such as Kiss and Tell had shown her making the transition from curly-haired moppet to sexually suggestive, if naïve, teen, and by the time she became engaged at age sixteen to Jack Agar, audiences were primed, to some degree, for her transition to bride.
As one biographer describes it, Temple's bridal gown was lavish: she wore a "twelve-foot-long white satin train" dress studded with seed pearls and a "little Infanta skirt" (Edwards 170). Her reception featured a "five-tiered, three-foot-high wedding cake," ice swans, and Spanish troubadours; it was, a bridesmaid emphasized, a perfect "fairy tale" (173, 150). A newsreel highlighted the performative aspect of the wedding, announcing that Shirley Temple "plays her greatest role at seventeen, the bride of Sergeant John Agar of the Army Air Force. Looking her loveliest, Shirley and her GI husband are the film capital's most popular Hollyweds" ("Shirley Temple's Wedding"). She is deemed American royalty, a princess in a fairy tale, and this event is one more show for her adoring public.
Yet it was not all a fairy tale: the spectacle of the bridal party made fans, as many as twelve thousand of them, delirious – and dangerous – with some nearly getting trampled as they rushed toward the church (Edwards 170). And, as Life reported, "When Jack and Shirley tried to leave [the church], the crowd swept past the guards. The wedding party had to wait 15 minutes for a passage to be cleared" ("Shirley Marries" 46). One bridesmaid recounts how they were almost crushed by the throng of fans: "People grabbed at our dresses; they were actually shredding us. They tore off pieces of mine and others. I think that was one of the only times in my life that I felt true panic" (Edwards 172). After years of wartime deprivation, fans were hungry for the gorgeous, larger-than-life romance that Temple represented. Although Shirley had said, firmly, "I don’t want a Hollywood circus" (169), given her tremendous fame, wealth, and the timing of her wedding, it became one.
Shirley Temple's wedding, however lavish, paled in comparison with another Hollywood event: the 1950 wedding of Elizabeth Taylor, which cemented the mid-century image of the radiant teen bride. Like child stars before her, Taylor had grown up fast, going from, as she put it, "childhood to ingénue to leading lady at sixteen" (Spoto 57). Her soulful violet eyes and mature demeanor made audiences think she was much older, and Taylor was eager to be the adult they thought she was. Yearning to have the "glamour of a married woman" and to get away from the supervision of her parents, Taylor rushed into one and then another engagement at age seventeen (67). She also began filming Father of the Bride, an adaptation of the successful novel by Edward Streeter, for MGM. Preparing for her marriage to hotel heir Conrad (Nicky) Hilton, the boundaries between her fictional and real-life weddings blurred: "Every time we did the shot of me walking up the aisle to the altar," she said, "I was living it" (68).
While the wedding of ingénues had once been seen as a liability, now it was a clear asset. MGM, eager to use her actual wedding as publicity for the film, handled many details of the wedding planning. Everything – the flowers, music, dresses, reception – was designed to show audiences that movies and life could merge (Spoto 69). In particular, Taylor's gown, with its tight-fitting bodice and seed pearls, was made to closely resemble the one her character, Kay Banks, wore in the film. As critics Otnes and Pleck note wryly, the outfit was pinched and uncomfortable, but gorgeously feminine: "a perfect summary of the prescribed role of women" in the 1950s (174). No expense was spared on the wedding and reception: "The six hundred guests...included the heads of all the studios, her co-stars in the film, and managers of the Hilton hotels" (172-173). As with Shirley Temple's wedding, thousands gathered outside the church and, despite the police and studio guards, "public chaos" ensued (Spoto 69).

By the time the film itself came out in June, a copy of the gown Taylor wore in the film was available in department stores. Wedding etiquette pamphlets were distributed at movie theaters and Artcarved Diamond rings featured a photo of Taylor in her wedding gown. Lux facial soap ads also featured the movie couple wearing their wedding attire: in it, the groom presses his nose against his bride's cheek as she gazes dreamily into the distance, assured that her skin is as soft and sweet-smelling as it could be ("I'm a Lux Girl"). These radiant images contrasted with the real-life honeymooning couple who were already quarreling. Their trip across Europe, meant to be an extravagant reward for an American scion and his Hollywood bride, proved to be a time of brutal disillusionment for Taylor (Spoto 70).
Yet the film played on. Directed by Vincente Minnelli – who had also directed the war-time wedding film The Clock five years earlier – Father of the Bride tied with Disney's Cinderella as the sixth-highest grossing film of 1950 (Jellison 158). As in Cinderella, the young bride secures her Prince Charming during a climactic, ostentatious wedding scene. Both helped solidify the notion of the white wedding – complete with an enormous bridal gown, heaps of stalky flowers, and a sumptuous reception – as fundamental to a young woman's happiness.
Certainly, not every teen celebrity bride had the opportunity for this lavish initiation ceremony. Yet, when they did not, as in the case of Sandra Dee a decade later, fan expectations had to be carefully negotiated and managed. When Dee met Bobby Darin in 1960, she was between sixteen and eighteen; her exact age has been disputed by her son, who says that Dee's mother falsely inflated her age to help her daughter's modeling career (Darin 27). Like other teen stars before her, Dee was anxious to escape the confines of her family situation as quickly as possible, and a few months after they began dating, she accepted Darin's marriage proposal. Dee had told reporters that she wanted "her husband to be seven or eight years older than she was" and for him to be "the real, absolute boss of the family" ("Waiting for Baby" 35). Darin, who was twenty-four, seemed the perfect candidate. Dee and Darin had planned to have a wedding reception with forty friends, but, after the press found out, they ended up being hastily married by a New Jersey clerk at four a.m. (Darin 148).
Given no opportunity for formal bridal portraits, fan magazines had to make do. Photoplay, the most popular fan magazine of the 1950s,8 called them the "Runaway Honeymooners!" and offered "exclusive pictures" of their "romantic, unexpected marriage" ("Runaway"). A few months later, the same magazine recounted the events of their wedding in dizzy, dreamy language: "Remember, Bobby? She had looked more like a nervous young secretary than a Hollywood star as she and Bobby slipped into the town clerk's office in Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey. She had her hair covered with an orange kerchief and wore her big camel's hair overcoat. She said she was Sandra Douvan and she was eighteen" ("Waiting for Baby" 33). The article makes the impetuous marriage into a romantic escapade: "They weren't confused. It was simple. They were in love…Who cared about a reception? They were to be together. And they boarded the California-bound jet airliner at Idlewild Airport, five hours after their marriage, sure of one thing: This was the loveliest way to be in love" (33). While the bridal incarnation of Elizabeth Taylor was dreamy and impossibly remote, Dee's every day beauty and ordinary clothes make her seem a down to earth star. Fans were encouraged to see her as another young woman, deeply in love, perhaps similar to them. 
For her part, Dee, with movies to promote, needed to appease her fans, who had been "excluded" from her wedding. Photoplay offered her an opportunity to make amends. The magazine reported that "[s]he'd been worried: Did you fans feel she had married too hastily, not wisely?" ("You Can Win" 56). Fans responded, and Sandra was "grateful" that they let her know "[w]e’re with you Sandy, we want you to be happy" (56). Although Dee could not thank each fan personally, as a sign of her gratitude, the lucky fan who wrote Dee the best letter on what marriage meant would, Photoplay announced, receive a "treasure”: a bridal doll given to Dee in Italy. This was not any doll: it was a miniature copy of herself in the film Romanoff and Juliet (56). In the picture that accompanies this contest, Dee clutches her doll, which is exquisitely dressed in lace and tulle. With its face half obscured, the doll acts as surrogate for Dee herself: pretty, mute, a plaything for others, but it is also inscrutable. It glances off to the side, as if wary of what the future holds. Dee, however, looks toward the camera, her eyebrows raised, her smile wide. She is, as ever, playing a role for her adoring audience. This time, she is teenage bride: youthful, radiant, a desirable doll, who is coveted by her fans.
Despite the big screen aura of a star such as Dee, fan magazines helped foster an illusion of closeness. With the increased popularity of television, an illusion of even greater intimacy between young stars and young fans was fostered. Disney's immensely popular "Mickey Mouse Club," which ran from 1955 to 1959, is a prime example of the way that television could be used to make youthful stars seem both desirable and accessible – and even marriageable. When the cast introduced themselves each week, using their real names and looking into the camera, it was as if they were reaching out personally to viewers at home. Such a personal rapport and sense of naturalness was necessary to establish the credibility of the products – a whole way of life – that Disney promoted. Their promotional strategies, including records, comic books, magazines, and the ubiquitous mouse ears were effective: in its first year of syndication, the audience of the Club was estimated to be as much as twelve million (Santoli 186).
When they began, most Mouseketeers were prepubescent and were not regulars in the more romantically-inclined fan magazines meant for older readers. As the stars got older, the Disney studios capitalized on their romantic potential while maintaining the squeaky clean image of their "top teen celebrities" (Eden 26). Some segments on the show, particularly those involving popular Annette Funicello, taught young adolescents about dating, including the exciting prospect of going steady, an event that would, if all went well, lead to domestic bliss. As proper young Disney protégés, Funicello and the other female Mouseketeers were firmly entrenched in postwar ideologies about family and the place of women. Once they left the show, most strove to maintain their good-girl aura. In an interview with four former Mouseketeers, the author of a 1961 article in Teen magazine remarks that these young women are "among the sharpest in the think department" and "consider marriage more important than careers" (Eden 26). Mouseketeer Cheryl Holdridge, 16, insists: "if I do fall in love with an actor, I’ll quit work"; she also promises to "keep myself and my home attractive for my husband" (26). Roberta Shore at 18 says, "I plan to marry when I get show business out of my system" because marriage and acting "do not mix" (27). Doreen Tracey, 18, says, in a curiously resigned tone, "When it comes, it comes…I don't know who really knows for sure if they're ready for marriage” (28). Although she insists in the article that she is "still looking" for a proper mate, a 1962 Teen article suggests that she and her husband were married in May 1961, a few months after the interview appeared (Clements 15). In this later piece, Tracey seems ecstatic about being a teenaged bride and, much like Sandra Dee, whose "Runaway Honeymoon" was the same year, describes their decision to forgo a big wedding in order to get married sooner. Just over two years later, though, Tracey was divorced and living with her parents and her eighteen-month-old toddler ("Flashback Mouseketeers" 77). According to one newspaper account, she was granted the divorce a little more than a year after their marriage because her husband was, she said,"“cold to me and showed me no affection in any way" ("Divorce Granted" 13).
Annette Funicello, favorite of fans and of Walt Disney himself, managed to avoid a teenage wedding and its potential pitfalls while at the same time cultivating teen wedding dreams in many of her fans. The theme song for the "Annette" serial on The Mickey Mouse Club first helped viewers perceive her as future bride: "Though she's just a cute preteener/And her father's pride and mother's joy/There will come a day/When they'll give Annette away/To the world's luckiest boy" ("Annette Funicello – Annette Ballet"). Annette embodied, one Club chronicler and fan put it, all the qualities "of honesty, sweetness, spirituality and, alas, virginity that most typified the aspirations and presumed moral ambiance of that era…she was a good girl and you wanted to marry her someday" (Bowles 28). Annette was not a girl to be toyed with: producers and fans alike saw her as wedding-worthy material, even at a tender age.
After the show ended, Funicello, despite or perhaps because of her perceived meager singing and acting abilities, remained popular. She was promoted as the girl next door, who could be what every good girl wanted to be. "What is an Annette?" read one 1959 Photoplay Magazine article. "What is any girl sixteen years old? She's the voice on one end of a telephone conversation, giggling, whispering, talking with her very best beau. She's the eyes that peer intently into the dressing-table mirror, cautiously inspecting her face, wishing that she'd grow up to be an Ava Gardner. She's dreams, ambitions, blushes" (Anderson 57). Annette, as quintessential girl next door, was a thing rather than a person, a body parceled out to her fans. She was a lovely young lady, one whose sexuality was muted, made manifest in her blushes and sighs.
A few years later, in 1962, Funicello helped promote the allure of the teen bride with another teen star of Walt Disney, Hayley Mills, through the song "Teenage Wedding." The song was part of the album Maurice Chevalier and Hayley Mills Take You to Teen Street, a peculiar, peppy album that features Chevalier's patriarchal lectures and the guileless musings of Mills, who had become an American sweetheart in films such as Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, even though she was British. Now sixteen, Mills recorded a breathy introduction to the song Funicello sang: "I can see it now. A beautiful little chapel near the village square. The bride is all dressed in white, the bridegroom is not yet to be seen. All my friends are there. The procession is about to start. Oh, my. I must be dreaming. It's too good…too good to be true" ("Teenage Wedding").
Mills does not directly refer to herself as the bride, but her use of the pronoun "my" when speaking about friends lets her listeners know that this is her own bridal fantasy. Chevalier's melodramatic reply lets Mills know that her vision is too good to be true, but that she should continue yearning for that sacred day: "Yes, Hayley. But dream on. Dream on, little girl. Dream. And hope. And pray. Until your dreams come true, on your wedding day." The septuagenarian Chevalier, who had thanked heaven for little girls four years earlier in the film Gigi, once again has sage advice for a girl on the brink of womanhood, and he delivers it in his rich, provocative voice that lends a disturbing erotic quality to everything he says. His words make clear that the pinnacle of a young woman's life is her wedding, and even successful young stars such as Hayley Mills are completely preoccupied with it.
Although it may be just a dream for Mills who, at sixteen, would be considered slightly too young to be a (middle-upper class) bride, for Annette Funicello, three years older, the dream could be a reality. It is Annette who sings the song and Annette, dressed in an elaborate bridal gown, who performs the song on the television program "Jukebox Saturday Night." With her distinct blend of girl-next-door charm and her "exotic" Italian-American sex appeal, Annette made an early wedding seem more desirable than ever:

I was dreamin' of a wedding
Of a happy teenage wedding
With bells a ringin', the choir singin',
"Here comes the bride."
My old boyfriends were the ushers
Your old girlfriends were the bridesmaids
And there were flowers, lots of flowers
And you by my side.
Oh what a shame that we must wait
Before we name the wedding date
Until you're walking up the aisle with me
Until my dream is a reality. ("Annette Funicello on Jukebox Saturday Night")

Here "waiting," as in so many songs of the period, is a coded word that alludes to a self- and societally-imposed sexual restraint: it's a "shame" to have to wait, but not waiting would be much more shameful. In this fantasy tableau, ex-girlfriends and boyfriends are not fuming in the wings, angry or jealous; instead, they are a key part of the wedding narrative. A "happy teenage wedding" has the power to bring everyone together and offer a sense of closure. 
The song, however, was not one of Funicello's biggest hits, and as the 1960s wore on, teenage marriage began to lose its allure. There were a number of reasons for this decline, including the increased visibility of the feminist movement and shifting attitudes toward pre-marital sex. In 1965, according to one study, thirty-three percent of men and seventy percent of women felt that premarital sex was immoral. By 1975, the figure dropped to 19.5 percent for men and 20.7 percent for women (Seidman 150). In this new world, a teenage wedding could hardly seem like the thrill it once had.
Throughout the postwar period, the cultivation of teenage bridal-think was a key part of a broader ideology of domestic containment. Even as anxieties about teens who were "too young to wed" preoccupied the middle class, bridal fantasies flourished. The invented traditions and consumer practices of the wedding fit in perfectly with postwar ideology, and teenage girls, as a burgeoning market, were ideal targets. Celebrities, advertisers, and marriage experts made a lavish wedding seem desirable and, through careful spending, attainable. While today, teenage obsession with weddings may seem to be the relic of a distant past and while the age at first marriage has risen sharply, many of the wedding traditions that crystalized in the mid-century remain important. A wedding still has the ability to represent economic achievement and stability, and the figure of the bride, with her engagement ring, bouquet, and expensive dress (if not, necessarily, sterling silverware) remains a cultural touchstone. "Teen dreams" of an early wedding may not have lasted through the 1960s, but dreams of an elaborate wedding still shape (for better or worse) the lives of many young American women today.



1. Some historians refer to this period as "the long decade of the 1950s." Stephanie Coontz maintains that this long decade "began in the United States in 1947 and lasted until the early 1960s” (226), although its seeds were sown in the final days of World War II.

2. See, for example, Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding by Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck; Brides, Inc: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition by Vicki Howard; It's Our Day: America's Love Affair with the White Wedding, 1945-2005 by Katherine Jellison; and As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America by Karen Dunak.

3. For example, the Madame Alexander Elise doll in a ballerina costume cost $12.00 in 1959; the bridal Elise cost $15.95 (“Madame Alexander”).

4. For more on adult panic at the increase in young marriages, see "Early to Wed: Teenage Marriage in Postwar America" by Julie Solow Stein.

5. This text emphasized some of the habits and behaviors that those planning for marriage should strive for: happily married women, they say – citing a study that was, by then, twenty-five years old – "are cooperative," "do not object to subordinate roles," and "tend to be conservative and conventional" in religion, morals, and politics. Happily married men also tend to be conservative: they "strongly uphold the sex mores and other social conventions" and are "benevolent toward inferiors" (100-101).

6. See, for example, "The Bride Is Star in Formal Wedding Gown." Ebony, May 1965, pp. 185+.

7. In the 1970s, romance comics featured more African American romances and African American brides. See, for example, DC's "We Can Never Marry" from Girls' Love Stories #172 in August 1972.

8. Sumiko Higashi observes that Photoplay, unlike other fan magazines, preferred to burnish the reputation of celebrities, privileging "sentimental and gossamer Cinderella tales" rather than gossip-mongering (4).


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